Joining the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq has brought real military and diplomatic benefits that help offset the cost in blood and treasure, top officials from three East European allies said in interviews this week.
Even as President Bush finds himself under pressure to defend the U.S. mission in Iraq, these officials — from Poland, Ukraine and Georgia — say the argument that Iraq has been an unmitigated drain on their forces is much too simplistic.
“We supported the war in Iraq and have our troops there now not because we felt threatened directly by Saddam Hussein,” said Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski.
“We are there because of our investment in a strong U.S.-Polish relationship. We want to show the United States we will be with them when we are needed,” he said. “To that extent, we have done what we hoped to do.”
On a practical level, he added, it has been a “boon” to Poland’s modernizing armed forces to work side by side with U.S. troops, for training, for organization and for “interoperability” with U.S. weapons and equipment.
“We have had five rotations of troops into Iraq and each has performed better than the previous one,” he said.
War critics have pointed to the decision by several coalition members to withdraw or sharply reduce their forces as a sign of the weakness of the overall mission.
But Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko said his country’s decision to deploy nearly 1,600 troops to Iraq in 2003 helped establish a “sphere of trust” with the Bush administration, even as the government of President Viktor Yushchenko prepares to bring all but a few Ukrainian troops home.
“For us, it has been a successful deployment, and our withdrawal has been fully coordinated with our American, Iraqi and coalition allies,” he said. “We are not leaving in the middle of the night, as some others did.”
Mr. Hrytsenko said security in the south-central Iraqi region overseen by Ukrainian forces was good, and noted that Ukrainian troops had been able to train a 2,700-strong brigade of Iraqi troops to assume control of the sector.
Ukraine also will leave behind a sizable cache of military equipment for use by the Iraqi security forces. Mr. Yushchenko has announced that a detachment of 50 Ukrainian soldiers will stay on after the larger force withdraws.
“We are leaving the Ukrainian flag in Iraq. We will still be part of the coalition,” Mr. Hrytsenko said.
In Georgia, perhaps the most pro-U.S. country in Europe, the Iraq mission has provided excellent real-world training and a means to showcase Georgia’s military prowess as it applies for membership in NATO.
“It has been very good for our capabilities and our experience,” said Giorgi Baramidze, former defense minister and now Georgia’s state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration.
He said Army Gen. George W. Casey, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, told him U.S. Marines came to prefer staging missions with Georgian soldiers “because our troops are so enthusiastic.”
Unlike Poland and Ukraine, Georgia’s 900 soldiers in Iraq, some stationed with U.S. troops in the violent Sunni Arab heartland, will remain with the U.S.-led mission indefinitely, Mr. Baramidze said.
All three ministers said their Iraq commitments have come with costs. Nineteen Polish troops and 18 Ukrainian troops have been killed in Iraq. Georgia’s casualties have been limited to one seriously wounded soldier, who is being treated at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Poland’s Mr. Sikorski said the Iraq commitment has damaged his country’s relations with other powers in the European Union and with some Arab states.
The $600 million cost of the deployment represents a tenth of the country’s overall defense budget, and Polish officials have suggested that the United States should consider helping to defray the costs.
Mr. Sikorski said that Iraqi civilian casualties in the Polish-run sector were the lowest in the country and said security was improving daily.
“If the rest of Iraq looked like our zone, the country would be in pretty good shape,” he said.